IN THE KITCHEN: Grilled Cheese Social Eatery
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“Say no to drugs and yes to grilled cheese,”
declares the chalkboard sign in front of the Grilled Cheese Social Eatery. “I'm all about shock value,” admits Randy Aylwin, who owns and operates the downtown Barrie restaurant specializing in — you guessed it — grilled cheese sandwiches.
To learn more about the downtown eatery, this GoodLife reporter headed to Dunlop Street to check it out. Wearing hip glasses, and sporting a small blue button on his shirt that reads: ‘support the locals,' 54-year-old Aylwin was eager to chat about his popular dining haunt. Conversation topics ranged from the secret to making a great grilled cheese to his savvy social media skills and the establishment's steady number one rating on Trip Advisor.  
Let's start off with your number 1 rating on Trip Advisor (that's 1 out of 386 Barrie restaurants). How long have you held that title?
Randy Aylwin: We've been number one on Trip Advisor for over a year. I know, right? [Smiles]. It's great that a grilled cheese restaurant with a cool vibe is consistently number one.

Why does everyone love a grilled cheese?
RA: It's comfort food, it's soul food and it's easy. It's also a perennial Canadian favourite like butter tarts and Kraft Dinner.

Why open a grilled cheese restaurant in downtown Barrie two years ago?
RA: It wasn't so much about the grilled cheese — it was more about me wanting to have a space. I wanted to inject a little cool into downtown Barrie, and grilled cheese was something I knew that I could pull off. My goal is to keep a positive vibe in the city. I like young people and the energy they bring to a city. I think we need to create interesting spaces for them. Otherwise, all of the 20 somethings will leave Barrie for the big cities. Having said that, my demographic is really anyone from eight to 80.

You're new to the restaurant business. What led you down the culinary path?
RA: For over 20 years, I owned and operated a chain of dollar stores. Then I had a life transformation and changed my whole philosophy. I sold everything and liquidated. I also got separated and took some time off. Then I got a little bored. At that same time, I became interested in cooking because I was doing special dinner nights for my kids and their friends. It started with spaghetti night, moved onto pizza night and then it turned into a grilled cheese party. All of the kids fell in love with my grilled cheese sandwiches. As a result, I decided to get some proper culinary training and schooling. With that under my belt, I was ready to open up a grilled cheese place. And the rest is history.

The decor is definitely eclectic. Your eatery is full of mixed matched tables and chairs, musical instruments, local artwork, various garage sale knickknacks, curios and more.  How would you describe the decor?
RA: Weird! [Laughs]. It's colourful, fun, full of life and it's very similar to how I decorate my house. I have a bunch of people in my life who are constantly at garage sales picking up interesting stuff for this place. My daughter, who is very artistic, has some pieces here. My sister has a painting on display and so does my son's boyfriend. I invite anyone to drop stuff off to display here.

Let's hear about the menu.
RA: We have 13 different grilled cheese options ranging from the classic to various gourmet options. 

What's the most popular?
RA: Hands down the Classic (cheddar, plain and simple) is our number one seller. After that, top contenders include the Mac 'n' Cheese (cheddar, white cheddar and stuffed with macaroni and cheese served with or without bacon), the Green Goddess (goat cheese, mozzarella, spinach, garlic and avocado served with or without bacon), the Parisian (brie, pear, caramelized onions on French bread) and the Spirit Catcher (Monterey Jack, cheddar, bacon, tomato, avocado and basil). When I first opened, I really tried to focus on the gourmet part, but turns out people generally just want a classic grilled cheese.

What about sides?
RA: You can order potato chips and a pickle, or a salad with a homemade vinaigrette. During the cooler months, we also serve soup. For dessert, we offer butter tarts and cookies.

What would you recommend for me?
RA: I would suggest the Parisian, the Spirit Catcher or the Green Goddess. 

What's the secret to making a great grilled cheese?
RA: Real butter is definitely a must! Buttering the bread is key. It all goes back to the three Bs of cooking — butter, bacon and booze [laughs]. Speaking of bacon, I sell tons of it.

What about the bread and cheese? 
RA: Since I'm a big supporter of local businesses, I get all of my bread and baked goods from Fox's Bakery or the Italian Bakery. In terms of bread, we offer sesame, multigrain, rye, whole wheat and white. But, white is really the best bread for grilled cheese because you don't want to distract too much from the cheese. The type of cheese we use depends upon the sandwich. We use cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella, processed, Gouda, Brie, Monterey Jack, provolone and Havarti. I would say Havarti is the best for grilled cheese because it's soft and melts really well.

What's your food philosophy?
RA: Eat anything in moderation is my philosophy. For me, it's all about serving simple food that tastes great.

What about folks with special dietary needs?
RA: We carry Thornbury Bakery gluten-free bread and we also have a vegan cheese available.

Judging by your Facebook page and Twitter feed, you're a big downtown Barrie supporter.
RA: I'm all about supporting downtown Barrie and all of my competitors. I promote downtown Barrie because I know that people aren't going to eat grilled cheese every day. But if they come downtown to do something else, they might notice my place and eventually I will get them in. And it seems to be working.

I enjoy your posts because they are always very positive.

RA: I post anything that promotes downtown Barrie in a good light. I put myself out there and I'm not afraid to do it. It's the only way I can compete with the bigger restaurants.

One of your Facebook posts went viral after your restaurant's goddess, a three-eyed papier mâché winged figure made by your daughter, was stolen. Can you expand?
RA: On one of the late-night shifts, the goddess (which hangs above the order counter) was taken. The next day, I came in and tried to figure out how I could spin it in a positive light. I made ‘missing goddess' posters and started hanging them up around downtown. Then I posted it on Facebook and it went viral. Long story short, the mother of the girl who had taken the goddess saw the post and asked her daughter to return it. I didn't lay any charges because I just wanted the goddess back. People went crazy about the story and many came in to congratulate me.

What do you cook at home?
RA: I enjoy grilled salmon with fresh vegetables or a salad served with a nice glass of wine. My girlfriend, Michelle Huggins (owner of the Lazy Tulip Cafe), is a bit of a sommelier so I've picked up her passion for great wine.

What about your late-night weekend hours?
RA: When I first opened, I was always opened super late on Friday and Saturday nights just to get my name out there. Now, I only do late nights randomly. However, we are starting to open on Friday and Saturday nights until 7 p.m. (normal close time is 4 p.m.)

Any interesting future plans?

RA: I'm hoping to be involved in another restaurant venture. It would be my dream to close the Grilled Cheese Social Eatery at 4 p.m. and then open up another place at 5 p.m. Barrie needs a venue with live music, small plates, nice wine and no TV. It would offer a calm intimate atmosphere and only be open until 10 p.m.

You've got the ear of thousands of local diners, let's use this opportunity to talk about your ‘suspended' sandwich and coffee program.
RA: My ‘suspended' sandwich and coffee program has been embraced by the people of Barrie and beyond. This is how it works. Customers come in and buy a grilled cheese and a coffee for themselves and then make a donation, if they want, to the program. We bank donations, and when someone comes in who can't afford lunch — or is simply having a bad day — we give them a sandwich and a coffee on the house. I do it at my cost. When I get a surge of donations, I team up with the Salvation Army and serve a meal at their facility. I also use the banked donations to help stock the David Busby Centre's outreach truck and to feed some of the homeless downtown residents.

Who was the last person you offered a free lunch to?
RA: It was a young mother with two little kids. They came in with a small suitcase because they were on their way to the bus station. The mother seemed very stressed, so I just said: ‘lunch is on the house.' Boy, did that take the stress away.

How can people donate?
RA: Just drop in and make a donation. It's $1 for a coffee and $3 for a grilled cheese. 

Gourmet Grilled Cheese Sandwich
(Recipe by Randy Aylwin of the Grilled Cheese Social Eatery)    
Try this tasty sandwich at home, or stop by the Grilled Cheese Social Eatery
and order one up!
2 slices fresh baked 100% whole wheat bread, thickly sliced
1/4 cup butter, softened
1-1/2 slices Cheddar (approximately 2 oz.)
1-1/2 slices Monterey Jack  (approximately 2 oz.)
2 slices maple smoked bacon, evenly browned, slightly crisped, chopped
1/2 cup fresh ripened tomato, diced
1/3 fresh ripened avocado, sliced
3 fresh basil leaves

Heat large skillet to medium heat. Spread butter from edge to edge onto both sides of each slice of bread. Place chopped bacon and diced tomato in skillet, cook for 3 minutes or until tomatoes are softened and bacon begins to crisp.
Place both slices of bread into skillet (away from bacon and tomato). Place sliced Cheddar on one slice of bread; place sliced Monterey Jack on the other slice of bread. Place basil leaves evenly on top of cheddar cheese.    
Lift bacon and tomato from skillet and place on top of Monterey Jack. Place sliced avocado on top of bacon and tomato. Flip slice of bread with cheddar and basil over onto the slice of bread with bacon, tomato, avocado, and Monterey Jack.
Grill sandwich until both sides are a crispy, golden, brown.

Grilled Cheese Social Eatery

53 Dunlop St E, Barrie
(705) 252-5937


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